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Engineers, too, hang out in the Web

Posted: 17 Apr 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:social networking? social computing? engineers on the Web?

Even before social networks such as MySpace and Facebook became skyrocketed of Web 2.0, engineers have been active in Usenet or Newsgroups, asking questions and helping one another via the Internet. They routinely uploaded files on FTP sites to share with engineers.

Just as teenagers crave fame, fortune and friendship on MySpace, engineers also seek recognition and camaraderie among their peers on the Internet. Like anyone, they long for an audience where they can strut their stuff.

The preferred Internet hangouts for engineers, though, are user communities, often hosted by technology companies. What they do there may be better described as "social computing" rather than "social networking."

Differences aside, the common denominator of "social computing" and "social networking" is that it's hard to stop. In that vein, Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales once wrote: "The main thing about Wikipedia is that it is fun and addictive."

More importantly, it offers a place to be solitary and yet social.

Building a community
In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Nicholson Baker described the phenomenon: "All big Internet successese-mail, AOL chat, Facebook, Gawker, Second Life, YouTube, Daily Kos, World of Warcrafthave a more or less addictive component; they hook you because they are solitary ways to be social: you keep checking in, peeking in, as you would to some noisy party going on downstairs in a house while you're trying to sleep."

MathWorks, a leading software provider for technical computing and model-based design, is witnessing a huge surge in activity in its online user communities. Ned Gulley, a leader for MathWork's user community, cited "a sea change" in the last two years, with the number of visitors to the Matlab site doubling on an annual basis.

Founded in 1984, Mathworks has been hosting a user community called Matlab Central since the early 1990's. As Gulley acknowledged, the company "didn't start from zero." But a few hundred files originally on its FTP site have grown to 7,500. Users add seven to eight new files every day to Matlab's file exchange. Its news group receives new questions constantly, prompting threads of exchanges.

Matlab, originally created to house a community of nearly 1 million users of the computing language of the same name, attracts nearly 400,000 users a month, according to the company.

While MathWorks maintains its storefront, it is "customers, not the company, hosting the site, who bring materials to the Website," said Gulley. Yair Altman, VP of R&D at PicScout, a visual content monitoring provider, is an active Matlab user. Altman, based in Israel, first came to MathWork's user community thinking it was an online help site. He quickly found out that the forum offers much more.

Matlab consists of two components: "Forum and "File exchange." Altman calls Matlab's forum "by far the most important" because he finds answers there to questions related to MathWorks "faster and more useful than Google."

"If you find a bug in Microsoft's closed software package, you send an e-mail to its support team. That's as far as you go." With Matlab, "you get direct dialog and responses from people who have been actually using MathWorks," Altman said.

It's addictive. Even when he's swamped, Altman can't help but look up new posts each day. He also submits programs to Matlab's File exchange. "When I get good reviews, I am quite proud of it," he said. Poor reviews from peers elicit the opposite response. "I say to myself, 'That was a perfect submission! Why don't they get it?'" The exercise only motivates him to submit more revisions.

Web learning
By showing the best practices for programming, engineers find an outlet for their professional pride. Further, Websites like Matlab are "building scaffolding for engineering apprenticeship," observed Gulley. A young engineer needs to sit next to a senior person to learn best practices in programming, he said.

Forums like Matlab "can provide a structure for experienced engineers to meet [new engineers] and help them grow," he added.

John D'Errico, a Kodak mathematician for 29 years who retired two and a half years ago, is a Matlab user. D'Errico was very familiar with Matlab, but lacked the time and energy to participate prior to his retirement.

Now he does, rising at 4:30 a.m. and downloading at least one file a day from Matlab's file exchange. A member of its review team, D'Errico tears apart the file, checks for errors and checks to see if it conforms to standards. He then writes a detailed review and posts comments on the file exchange. D'Errico is considered one of Matlab's most engaging mentors.

"Before I started the long, substantial, constructive reviews, most of the reviews [on Matlab] were single sentences, and not constructive. Afterwards, I saw a few others making a bit more of an effort.

"When you have a visible individual who acts constructively, providing feedback to the rest, this can raise the level of all those who visit the area."

D'Errico added, "Mentoring has a variety of forms: answering questions, providing reviews of submitted code are two such forms. A third is submitting one's own code. Here, the rest can see your own work, often emulating what they see.

"We learn by what we see in the outside world as well as from our own mistakes. If our own learning came only from our own random mistakes and successes, it may take a long time to evolve."

As for social networks, never underestimate "human needs to contribute," said Gulley. People want to contribute, to be appreciated and to be respected. How else to explain Wikipedia's boom?

Social networking
In the corporate world, social networking can clash with the the commercial potential of an idea. D'Errico said Kodak didn't make it easy when he sought corporate clearance before submitting his code to Matlab's file exchange. The effort, he said, "was a pain in the butt."

If an employee wants to write something new, D'Errico, said, the first question is: "Should we patent this first?"

PicScout's Altman doesn't see patent issues as a hindrance to Matlab involvement, largely because code he submits rarely has any "direct relation to the job I do." D'Ericco remains hopeful. Corporate patent anxiety might subside as a generation of young social networkers enter the engineering workforce. It could take "only a few people in a corporation," said D'Ericco, to swing the pendulum. "Corporations could encourage their employees to publish their code and share stuff with the outside world more often."

But if social computing is old hat among engineers, how to explain the recent burst in traffic among user communities? Look no further than the change in consumers' online behavior in the last few years, said Gulley. "If you want to buy a digital camcorder today, without question you already know a Web site you can go to. That's a site you trust, where you can compare models and prices and ultimately even purchase a model you want," he said. "Consumers know they are no longer at the mercy of vendors."

There is a direct parallel to what's happening in engineering. If an engineer is asked to develop a new piece of software, instead of dusting off his college books and starting to write code from scratch, he just thinks, "This has to exist somewhere. I refuse to do it myself," explained Gulley.

As seen in many Matlab threads, a common jab is: "Are you asking us to do your homework?" In short, the forum has a system of etiquette. "You can't just say, 'Please do the following' and expect to get spoon-fed," Gulley said.

Is Matlab considered a "social network"? Gulley believes it's still more like "social computing," but the experiences of many users might be blurring that line in a positive way.

D'Errico said, "There are a couple people with whom I communicate so oftenI feel comfortable calling them 'friends.'" After helping many on the forum, "I do get messages like, 'if you are ever in town, I'll treat you a beer,'" he said. Unfortunately, D'Errico, who no longer travels that often, has yet to sip that first beer.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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